January 15, 2009
FBI agents that spied on Martin Luther King also ran COINTELPRO operation against 'Omaha Two'
By Michael Richardson
In 1970, William Cornelius Sullivan, associate director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Charles D. "Chick" Brennan, his chief investigator, ran a clandestine and illegal operation code-named COINTELPRO that targeted domestic political activists for improper police attention and harassment. Mark Felt, better known as "Deep Throat" of Watergate infamy, was head inspector of the FBI and oversaw all COINTELPRO operations.
The 'Omaha Two' were leaders of Omaha, Nebraska's Black Panther chapter and the main targets of Omaha's FBI office. Sullivan was the Bureau spokesman for the COINTELPRO operation against the pair while Brennan approved and monitored reports from the Omaha office where he used to work. Felt was on the distribution list for the Omaha memos and kept track of the case for the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover.
Edward Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice) knew they were under surveillance and regularly experienced police harassment with frequent traffic stops. Mondo we Langa was hauled before a federal grand jury investigating him but they were unprepared to be charged with the August 17th bombing murder of an Omaha police officer, Larry Minard. Unfortunately for the two activists, Felt, Sullivan and Brennan were well experienced with breaking the rules and employing dirty tricks regardless of the legality or moral fitness of their actions.
Sullivan would later freely admit to a U.S. Senate investigating committee that COINTELPRO was a "no holds barred" operation and that the only rule was avoiding getting caught.
The three ranking FBI officials had perfected their technique waging Hoover's hidden, illegal wars against targets he deemed a threat to the national order. The biggest target that Brennan and Sullivan had worked was Martin Luther King, Jr.
The illegal surveillance of King by the FBI lasted for years and covered three different phases authorized variously by J. Edgar Hoover, Robert Kennedy, and William Sullivan. Hoover first ordered the wiretaps and hidden microphones on King in the late 1950's before COINTELPRO was officially implemented under the rationale that Communist influences had to be rooted out. Robert Kennedy ordered the second round of secret monitoring in the early 60's to keep tabs on the civil rights movement. Sullivan ordered more surveillance in the mid-60's on his own initiative to obtain political intelligence. The hidden world of FBI dirty secrets is occasionally revealed in oft-redacted confidential COINTELPRO memos that have emerged piecemeal through Freedom of Information requests and litigation.
After King's "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington an indignant Sullivan wrote to Hoover the speech was "demagogic" and that "We must mark [King] now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation." Sullivan cautioned, "[I]t may be unrealistic to limit ourselves as we have been doing to legalistic proofs or definitely conclusive evidence that would stand up in testimony in court or before Congressional Committees."
As events progressed Sullivan kept up his drumbeat to Hoover calling King, "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country" while "we are right now in this nation engaged in a form of social revolution."
King's home was wiretapped, King's attorney Stanley Levison's office phone was tapped, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's office tapped and hidden microphones placed in King's hotel and motel rooms as he travelled the country. Warrants were never obtained for the illegal entries to install listening devices.
In the fall of 1963, Brennan, always eager to please Sullivan, authored an 11-page monograph titled Communism and the Negro Movement--A Current Analysis. Brennan pointed out that King was "an unprincipled man" and thus dangerous.
"As the situation now stands, Martin Luther King is growing in stature daily as the leader among leaders of the Negro movement. Communist party officials visualize the possibility of creating a situation whereby it could be said that, as the Communist party goes, so goes Martin Luther King, and so also goes the Negro movement in the United States."
Brennan's memo to Sullivan about King was popular with Hoover who ordered copies sent to the White House, the Pentagon, the Attorney General and several cabinet members. President Kennedy was angered that Brennan's memo had been sent to the military and considered it very unfair and one-sided. Robert Kennedy ordered a recall of the memo although Hoover would later claim the recall was his idea.
In December 1963, Sullivan decided to accelerate the investigation of King and convened a headquarters meeting of various field offices and senior FBI staff to discuss King. Sullivan's message to the gathered officials and special agents was, "We must continue to keep close watch on King's personal activities." Sullivan declared that King was "unfit" to serve as a minister as a result of information obtained from the wiretaps that King had a "weakness in his character."
Sullivan wrote a memo declaring, "We will at the proper time when it can be done without embarrassment to the Bureau, expose King as an immoral opportunist who is not a sincere person but is exploiting the racial situation for personal gain." Sullivan wanted to "expose King for the clerical fraud and Marxist he is at the first opportunity."
After King was named "Man of the Year" by Time magazine, Sullivan authorized bugging King's hotel room. In another memo, Sullivan detailed that "trespass is involved" however "I authorized Washington Field Office to make effort to secure microphone coverage of King provided full security would be assured."
Emboldened by his own order of a bug for King's room, Sullivan mapped out a master strategy in a lengthy memo on Jan. 8, 1964. Sullivan not only wanted to discredit King but replace him with a new national leader satisfactory to the FBI.
"King must, at some propitious point in the future, be revealed to the people of this country and to his Negro followers as being what he actually is--a fraud, demagogue and moral scoundrel. When the true facts concerning his activities are presented, such should be enough, if handled properly, to take him off his pedestal and reduce him completely in influence so that he will no longer be a security problem and no longer will be deceiving and misleading the Negro people."
"When this is done….The Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to steer them in the proper direction. This is what could happen, but need not happen if the right kind of a national Negro leader could at this time be gradually developed so as to overshadow Dr. King and be in the position to assume the role of leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited."
According to Sullivan, the transcripts from King's hotel room surveillance were presented to Hoover and the FBI director stated, "They will destroy the burrhead." The hotel bugs had captured evidence of King's marital infidelity and Hoover was more excited than he had been about supposed Communist influences. While Hoover called King a burrhead, Sullivan would call King a beast or animal.
Sullivan began an aggressive bugging program sending FBI sound teams around the country as King travelled. Soon King's critical remarks about Hoover could be heard on the hidden microphones enraging the director when he learned of them.
Sullivan arranged for a series of briefings on King and the hotel room tapes with political leaders like Nelson Rockefeller and Hubert Humphrey and a host of religious leaders. Sullivan personally briefed the head of the National Council of Churches.
Sullivan next began working the media. The Atlanta Constitution was a prime target and reporters had not been following the wishes of the local FBI office so Sullivan met on Jan. 20, 1965 with the publisher of the paper to discuss Martin Luther King.
The FBI bugging of King continued until January 1966 when Hoover ordered it discontinued for fear of exposure by a U.S. Senate inquiry into electronic surveillance. However, Sullivan kept up his close monitoring of King and was coordinating physical surveillance of King in Memphis when King was assassinated.
After Martin Luther King's death, the FBI turned their focus to the Black Panthers and Brennan, Sullivan and Felt began coordinating and approving field actions against the Panthers. However, George Moore, head of the FBI Racial Intelligence section, sent Sullivan a memo in January 1969 about efforts to make King's birthday a national holiday. Moore urged Sullivan to have a information ready for the incoming Nixon administration about King from the wiretaps and bugging. Sullivan passed on Moore's suggestion to Hoover and on January 23rd, just three days after the inauguration Hoover sent a Top Secret memo to Attorney General designee John Mitchell.
"The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, found by Martin Luther King, Jr., held demonstrations on January 15, 1969, King's birthday, urging that his birthday be made a national holiday. Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has advocated national holiday status for King's birthday, according to press reports."
"In view of this, there is enclosed a document regarding the communist influence on King during his career and information regarding King's highly immoral personal behavior. For your information, a copy of this document is also being furnished to the President."
The COINTELPRO team that spied on King and was continuing efforts to destroy his reputation was still in place in August 1970 when an anonymous caller lured Omaha police officer Larry Minard to his bombing murder.
The 911 tape recording of the killer's voice was sent to FBI headquarters for vocal analysis. J. Edgar Hoover gave Ivan Willard Conrad, the Crime Laboratory director, the order to withhold a formal report on the tape. The Omaha FBI office wanted to prosecute Poindexter and Langa for the crime and a troublesome lab report indicating their innocence would not help the case being made against them.
Brennan approved of the plan to go after the two Omaha Panther leaders and kept Sullivan briefed while Felt kept the entire operation on track. The day after Minard's death in Omaha, George Moore sent a memo to Brennan about criticism of Hoover at the annual SCLC conference in Atlanta. In response, Hoover approved providing yet another memo attacking King to a friendly media source. Assistant FBI director Thomas Bishop, who was on the 'Omaha Two' COINTELPRO memo distribution list, acted on Hoover's order and supplied the information on King to a designated reporter.
Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa were convicted without the jury ever hearing the killer's voice. The jury never knew of the FBI intrigue and withheld lab report. Both men were sentenced to life imprisonment and are confined at the maximum-security Nebraska State Penitentiary where they continue to deny any involvement in Minard's death.
Poindexter has a new trial request pending before the Nebraska Supreme Court over the withheld tape recording and conflicting police testimony. No date for a decision has been announced.
Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, law, nutrition, ethics, and music. Richardson is also a political consultant.